The family of Mr. Dana is one of the oldest and most honored in Massachusetts. The first of the name who came to America was Richard Dana, in 1640; he settled at Cambridge, where six generations of the family have since resided.
The poet's grandfather on this side of the house, Richard, was a patriot of the times preceding the Revolution, and known at the bar as an eminent lawyer. His son was Francis Dana the Minister to Russia, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, a man of honor, high personal sense of character, and of energetic eloquence. He married a daughter of William Ellery of Rhode Island, the signer of the Declaration of Independence, by which union his son and the celebrated Dr. Channing were cousins. Judge Ellery once described to his grandson, the poet, the aroused sense of honor which he witnessed in Francis Dana, in his rebuke of an impudent lawyer at the bar, who had charged him with an unfair management of the case. "In opening his reply to the jury," said Mr. Ellery, "he came down upon the creature; he did it in two or three minutes' time, and then dropped him altogether. I thought," added he, "I felt my hair rise and stand upright on my head while he did it."
On the mother's side Dana's family runs up to the early poetess Anne Bradstreet, the daughter of Governor Dudley. His grandfather Ellery married the daughter of Judge Remington, who had married the daughter of that quaint disciple of Du Bartas. Dana's uncle, Judge Edmund Trowbridge, also married one of the Dudley family.
Richard Henry Dana was born at Cambridge, November 15, 1787. His early years were passed at Newport, in the midst of the associations of the Revolution and the enjoyments of the fine sea views and atmosphere of the spot. He entered Harvard, which he left in 1807. He studied law in the office of his cousin Francis Dana Channing, the eldest brother of Dr. Channing. After admission to the Boston bar he spent about three months in the office of Robert Goodloe Harper at Baltimore, where he was admitted to practice. He returned home in 1811 and became a member of the legislature, where he found a better field for the exercise of his federal politics and opinions. His first literary public appearance was as an orator on the Fourth of July celebration of 1814.
The North American Review was commenced in 1815. It grew out of an association of literary gentlemen composing the Anthology Club who for eight years, from 1803 to 1811, had published the miscellany entitled The Monthly Anthology. Dana was a member of the club. The first editor of the Review was William Tudor, from whose hands it soon passed to the care of Willard Phillips, and then to the charge of an association of gentlemen for whom Mr. Sparks was the active editor. In 1818 Edward T. Channing became editor of the Review, and associated with him his cousin Richard H. Dana, who had left the law for the more congenial pursuits of literature.
Mr. Channing died at Cambridge, February 8, 1856, at the age of sixty-five. An obituary notice of his career, from the pen of his relative, Richard Henry Dana, jr., appeared in the Boston Daily Advertiser. This was extended into the biographical notice which prefaces the single published volume of Mr. Channing's writings, issued shortly after.
From this modestly written account of the career of a man of great worth and usefulness, we glean a few particulars in addition to the notice of his writings already given.
Mr. Channing, a younger brother of the celebrated divine, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, December 12, 1790. The family influences by which he was surrounded were' eminently calculated for the development of a character of strength and refinement. He entered Harvard University in 1804, at the age of thirteen, but was not, we are told, "graduated in course, as he was involved in the famous rebellion of 1807, one of the few in which the students seem, on the whole, not to have been in the wrong." He received his degree, however, some years afterward from the college, in 1819.
He studied law with his eldest brother, Francis Dana Channing. The turn of his mind and his diligent reading led his friends to anticipate in him a distinguished member of the profession in which his father had attained such eminence; but he was diverted from this course by a fondness for literature, and the club being then formed which gave rise to the North American Review, he entered heartily into the schemes of that society, and, in 1818 and the following year, as we have stated, edited the Review, contributing freely to its pages. His articles, already enumerated, were marked by their spirit and philosophical discrimination. The ability which he thus exhibited, doubtless had its influence in his appointment, in 1819, to the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, at Harvard, which he held for thirty-two years. His influence during this long period was, steadily exerted in the formation of sound habits of thinking and of a pure and healthy taste in literature. "Many," says his biographer, "will recall the quiet, keen, epigrammatic satire, that he used so sparingly and so well, with which he gave a death-wound to the popularity of some ill-deserving favorite in oratory or poetry. Yet, though severe in his tastes, he was, on the whole, a wide liker. He was not fond of fault-finding. He was no martinet. Wherever he saw sincerity, earnestness, and power, no man made larger allowances for faults."
The published volume of his writings to which we have alluded, bearing the simple title, Lectures read to the Seniors in Harvard College, devoted to rhetoric, the art of writing, and the formation of literary opinions, sustains the high estimate of his pupils. Whether discussing the secrets of oratorical excellence, the eminence of the bar or the pulpit, or the arts of composition and the true grounds of literary fame, its train of thought is at once sound and ingenious. At the present time a new impulse has been given to the study of the use of language in speech and writing by the labors of Archbishop Whately, Dean Trench, Mr. George P. Marsh, and others. To the excellent works of these authors the volume of Professor Channing will be found no unprofitable companion. Its merit is of a permanent character.
In his metaphysical studies, Mr. Channing preferred the philosophy of Reed. His political views, following the traditions of his family, were conservative, with "strong instincts of liberty, his sympathies being always with the efforts for reasonable and responsible systems of freedom, at home and abroad." In theology he was a Unitarian of the old school, a member of the church attached to the college chapel at Cambridge, and a devout biblical student.
When Channing was made Boylston professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard he resigned the editorship of the Review, and Dana, who was considered too unpopular to succeed him, left the club. Dana wrote in the period of two years five papers, one an essay on "Old Times," the others on literary topics, chiefly poetical. In 1824 Dana began the publication of The Idle Man, a periodical in which he communicated to the public his Tales and Essays. Six numbers of it were issued when it was discontinued; the author acquiring the experience hitherto not uncommon in the higher American literature, that if he would write as a poet and philosopher, and publish as a gentleman, he must pay as well as compose.
Bryant, with whom Dana had become acquainted in the conduct of the North American Review, was a contributor of several poems to the Idle Man; and when this publication was discontinued Dana wrote for his journal, the New York Review of 1825, and afterwards the United States Review of 1826-7. In the latter he published articles on Mrs. Radcliffe and the novels of Brockden Brown. From 1828 to 1831 he contributed four papers to The Spirit of the Pilgrims. An Essay on The Past and the Present in the American Quarterly Observer for 1833; and another on Law as suited to Man, in the Biblical Repository for 1835, conclude the list of our author's contributions to periodical literature.
The first volume of Dana's Poems, containing The Buccaneer, was published in 1827. In 1833 he published at Boston a volume of Poems and Prose Writings, reprinting his first volume with additions, and including his papers in the Idle Man. In 1839 he delivered a course of eight lectures on Shakespeare at Boston and New York , which he has subsequently repeated in those cities and delivered at Philadelphia and elsewhere. In 1850 he published an edition of his writings in two volumes at New York, adding several essays and his review articles, with the exception of a notice of the historical romance of Yorktown, in Bryant's United States Review, and the paper on Religious Controversy in the Spirit of the Pilgrims.
These are the last public incidents of Mr. Dana's literary career; but in private the influence of his tastes, conversation, and choice literary correspondence, embraces a liberal field of activity. He passes his time between his town residence at Boston and his country retirement at Cape Ann, where be enjoys a roof of his own in a neat marine villa, pleasantly situated in a niche of the rocky coast. Constant to the untiring love of nature, he is one of the first to seek this haunt in spring and the last to leave it in autumn.
His writings possess kindred qualities in prose and verse; thought and rhythm, speculation and imagination being borrowed by each from the other.
The Buccaneer is a philosophical poem; a tale of the heart and the conscience. The villainy of the hero, though in remote perspective to the imagination, appeals on that account the more powerfully to our own consciousness. His remorse is touched with consummate art as the rude hard earthy nature steps into the region of the supernatural, and with unchanged rigidity embraces its new terrors. The machinery is at once objective and spiritual in the vision of the horse. The story is opened by glimpses to the reader in the only way in which modern art can attain, with cultivated minds, the effect of the old ballad directness. The visionary horror is relieved by simple touches of human feeling and sweet images, as in the opening, of the lovely, peaceful scenes of nature. The remaining poems are divided between the description of nature and a certain philosophical vein of thought which rises into the loftiest speculative region of religion, and is never long without indications of a pathetic sense of human life.
The prose of Dana has similar characteristics to his verse. It is close, elaborate, truthful in etymology; and, with a seeming plainness, musical in its expression. There is a rare use of figures, but when they occur they will be found inwrought with the life of the text; no sham or filigree work.
In the tales of Tom Thornton and Paul Felton there is much imaginative power in placing the mind on the extreme limits of sanity, under the influence of painful and engrossing passion. The story of the lovers, Edward and Mary, has its idyllic graces of the affections. In these writings the genius of our author is essentially dramatic.
The critical and philosophical essays, embracing the subtle and elaborate studies of human life in Shakespeare, show great skill in discrimination, guided by a certain logic of the heart and life, and not by mere artificial dialectics. They are not so much literary exercises as revelations of, and guides to character. This character is founded on calm reverence, a sleepless love of truth, a high sense of honor, and of individual worth. With these conditions are allied strong imagination, reaching to the ideal in art and virtue, and a corresponding sympathy with the humanity which falls short of it in life.